Why this ‘weird’ Rockets team is uniquely suited for small ball, even come playoff time

SAN FRANCISCO — It was fitting that it was 1960s night at Chase Center on Thursday as the Golden State Warriors welcomed the new-look Houston Rockets. After all, just a few weeks ago, the Rockets became the first team since 1963 to play an entire game without a player listed over 6-foot-6 taking the floor. And they won.

Less than a week after that game, Houston fully embraced small ball by trading center Clint Capela to the Hawks and acquiring forward Robert Covington, which has sparked countless conversations about the future of the Rockets, head coach Mike D’Antoni and even the NBA as we know it. On Thursday, Houston started James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker and Covington, the lineup’s tallest player at 6-7.

There are questions about how the Rockets’ unique style will function, but there are no questions about how it makes the players feel. They’ve bought in, and D’Antoni says analytics have helped get the message across that the team can be successful playing this way. In his first game since being waived by the Utah Jazz on Christmas Eve, new Rockets acquisition Jeff Green scored 17 points on 4 of 5 3-point shooting in 24 minutes against the Warriors.

“It’s fun. When you have guys who can guard multiple positions, playing unselfishly, playing together, that’s the right way to play,” Green said after the game.

Some see the Rockets’ personnel decision as a signal of the end of the big man as we know it, but D’Antoni was quick to put those theories to bed prior to his team’s 135-105 win over the Warriors, in which Houston knocked down 25 of 49 3-pointers. He thinks the Rockets’ unique roster construction and skill sets makes their style difficult for other teams to duplicate moving forward.

“We have a strange team, where James is really good at guarding posts. So is Eric Gordon. Everybody we have can guard the post,” D’Antoni said. “We rebound just as well with the little guys, so it’s weird — it’s a weird team. It helps Russell on offense, it helps James. So offensively we’re better and should be — theoretically — we should be better defensively.”

In case you thought D’Antoni was just blowing smoke to hype up his guys, that’s not the case. The numbers back up everything he’s saying, with Harden in the 96th percentile of NBA players in post defense, allowing just 0.554 points per possession according to Synergy Sports Technology. The lineup of “little guys” who started against the Warriors had a defensive rebounding percentage of 76.9 entering Thursday night, according to NBA.com, which ranks 10th in the league since Covington’s first game with the team, for lineups which have played at least 35 minutes together. In other words, they’re not getting killed on the boards — in fact, they’re bordering on elite (with the obvious small sample size caveat).

Other teams have used small lineups in recent years, particularly to finish games, but we rarely see a team stick with it for the majority of minutes unless injuries force the coach’s hand. Even the Warriors, whose “death lineup” and “Hamptons five” routinely produced some of the best plus-minus numbers in the league, used small ball sparingly.

“I think you have to play to your strengths, and each coach has to determine what that means for his team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, comparing his use of small ball to D’Antoni’s. “For us, it meant shorter bursts, you know 10-15 minutes a game with Draymond [Green] at center. But it wasn’t something we wanted to do a whole lot of, just because we’ve generally had very deep teams, and, you know, it could wear us down. For us it was a different equation.”

Over the past few seasons, Capela was a viable option for D’Antoni in the middle — a decent rim protector who provided vertical spacing for Harden as a lob threat. However, with the addition of Westbrook this season, it increasingly made sense to play small, with all five players around the 3-point line, to create space for him to wreak havoc with his speed and ability to get to the rim. It also creates room and passing angles for Harden, one of the best isolation players in the league. While in the past, D’Antoni has been forced to determine when to play Capela and when to go small, that decision no longer applies. D’Antoni concedes that sometimes his team will struggle against teams with size, but overall he knows this is the best way for the Rockets to play.

“We’re gonna play small. We don’t need to go big. Our team is better this way, and if we’re gonna dive in, we might as well go all the way in,” D’Antoni said. “You know, Tyson [Chandler] can play and we still have bigs, but for the most part — and you know, we’ll get pounded some — but we’ll just see how it works out.”

One criticism D’Antoni and the Rockets have heard is that the no-big system will wear down their players, particularly Tucker, who takes the bulk of minutes at the center position. Draymond Green, who has played more than his fair share of center over the course of the Warriors’ five straight NBA Finals runs, said that matching up with other teams’ bigs “can kind of wear on you” when discussing Tucker. D’Antoni, however, pointed out that although Tucker is technically playing center, he generally isn’t matching up with big bruisers, but rather the other team’s most elite wing. In fact, he said usually Harden takes on the task of guarding the other team’s center. Overall, D’Antoni said, his main lineup staples spend a similar amount of time guarding wings and bigs throughout any given game.

While it was sometimes hard to play Capela in certain playoff series, Covington seems like the perfect addition to the Rockets’ assault on both ends. He’s averaged 13.8 points, six rebounds and 2.2 blocks on 38 percent 3-point shooting since coming over from the Minnesota Timberwolves. It will be interesting to see how Houston looks in possible playoff matchups with big teams like the Lakers (who the Rockets beat just before the All-Star break) or Nuggets, but if things go right, they’ll force opponents to adapt to them — not the other way around.

“It’s hard to sit up here and guard five guys out. Normally you’ve got one guy in, two guys in sometimes depending on the teams,” Covington said after the win over the Warriors. “But five out, a lot of guys — a lot of bigs — aren’t used to playing like that, so it kind of puts them in a funk and then it puts them in a lot of rotation plays. We were able to get a lot of good looks out of it tonight, and we’ve just got to keep building off of it.”

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